Sounds of Silence, Bread from Heaven and Wondering What it Means to Listen to God…
1 Kings 19:1-15; Psalm 130; Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2; John 6:35-51
Sunday, August 12, 2018 – The Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost
Knox-Metropolitan United Church – Regina, SK – Treaty 4 Territory
I wonder what sound, or what sounds, bring you joy?
I wonder if there is a sound or a voice that you long to hear?
I wonder what you would say, if I were to ask you, what is the sound of God’s voice?
I wonder what you would say, if I were to ask you, have you ever heard God’s voice?
The stories Garth read for us today both revolve around listening/hearing and wondering if God is indeed speaking.
Our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures (what the Christian Tradition names as the Old or First Testament) revolves around one of the great heroes of the community of Israel, Elijah the Prophet.
Elijah lived and ministered during the time of King Ahab, who ruled for about 20 years in the 9th BCE. This was part of the history of Israel known as the divided Kingdoms, for the 12 tribes had been united under King Saul, King David and then Solomon, with Jerusalem serving as the capital, but after Solomon’s death, his successor was not accepted universally and the Kingdom was split into the Kingdom of Judah in the South, and Israel in the North.
For about two centuries, from the middle of the 10th century to the middle of the 8th, these two Kingdoms lived in opposition albeit not always in direct conflict, until the Kingdom of Assyria invades and exiles many in the Northern Kingdom, which is later repeated in the southern Kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians.
This time of division is worth remembering for those who ponder the Christian Tradition and the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth because by the time of his life, while what were once the divided Kingdoms have been brought together under Roman rule, that the North and the South have had the better part of 1000 years of diverse history, and certainly deep divides continue — particularly worth remembering when Jesus (who comes from the North) comes into conflict with the ruling elites based in the South.
But back to Elijah (to whom Jesus is often compared).
Elijah has just stood off against 450 prophets of Baal to whom King Ahab and his consort Jezebel have given power and influence in the North – he triumphs and kills the 450, which infuriates Ahab and Jezebel — so Elijah is on the run.
Elijah goes alone into the wilderness (a motif that will be repeated in the story of Jesus) where he is tended to be angels (also a motif that will be repeated in the story of Jesus) and then he goes to Mount Horeb for 40 days and 40 nights (again, a motif that will be repeated in the story of Jesus).
There Elijah converses with the voice of God, claiming that he is done being a prophet and wishing that his life would be over. He is told to go to the mouth of cave where God’s own self will pass by.
Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.
And God was in the sound of the sheer silence.
Our reading ends there but if we were to continue we would see Elijah strengthened by this encounter and empowered to recommit to his ministry, reenter the world and indeed expand his ministry by bringing on Elisha as an apprentice who will in short time be commissioned to take up the work Elijah has begun.
Our reading from the Gospel of John is a bit more complex (as the book of John tends to be). We heard a portion of a lengthy exchange between Jesus and the crowds following a narration of John’s version of the feeding story which we find in all four Gospels.
Now for churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary, this episode is spread over 5 weeks that always fall in the summer and so pulling just one out becomes even more confusing, but we can see that the core question of this exchange is the crowd wondering how they can know that Jesus (and by extension) his teachings, indeed come from God.
What does it mean to listen for the voice of God?
I remember being in my early to mid twenties, at which time I was deeply involved in Evangelical and Charismatic churches, communities in which it was promised that each person could indeed hear for themselves the voice of God through the Holy Spirit.
This was both an exciting and anxiety provoking proposition — exciting in that it was possible, anxiety provoking in that the implication was that if one was not hearing something they could name as God’s voice, one felt that they themselves must be the problem.
Our siblings in the Quaker Tradition have a gentler way of taking up this invitation in which all people are able to access the voice of God, but this is done in a much more communal atmosphere. In fact we hope at some time in the coming programming year to offer a workshop on Quaker Spirituality here at Knox-Met.
Renowned Quaker teacher Thomas Kelly wrote in his book A Testament of Devotion:
“Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Centre, a speaking voice, to which we may continuously return”
Former Catholic priest, the late John O’donahue, referring to the German mystic Meister Ekhart, once said:
“There is a place in the soul — there is a place in the soul that neither time, nor space, nor no created thing can touch.” And I really thought that was amazing, and if you cash it out what it means is, that in — that your identity is not equivalent to your biography. And that there is a place in you where you have never been wounded, where there’s still a sureness in you, where there’s a seamlessness in you, and where there is a confidence and tranquility in you. And I think the intention of prayer and spirituality and love is now and again to visit that inner kind of sanctuary.
For us here today, I wonder, where do we expect the voice of God to come from?
For us here today, I wonder, about what might we expect the voice of God to speak?
Might we find wisdom, courage and sureness to make the next important step in our lives, whatever that may be?
Might we find wisdom, courage and sureness to know how to make sense of the sometimes confounding questions of the world in which we live today?
We as a congregation are in a time of listening as we wonder about the future of Knox-Metropolitan United Church. Listening to the stories of other congregations who have made courageous moves to find a new expression of who they are. Listening to our community, to our neighbourhood, listening for resonance about who we might become and the needs of individuals and organizations.
At the same time, I wonder, what opportunities for listening do we offer here for those who come seeking something?
How do we, through our building, as a congregation and as an institution speak something of what could be interpreted as God’s voice to the community around us.
What messages, overt and implied might people encounter when they enter this space, on Sunday morning, on Thursday evening, or at any other time?
These are, I believe, worthwhile questions for our attention.
A New Creed of the United Church of Canada includes this line, that…
We believe in God, who has created, and is creating
Who works in us and others by the spirit
I love this implication that there is an invitation to join in the ongoing work of creation, that our world and its trajectory, whether on the small scale of our lives, families and communities, or the large scale of the world, our shared home.
I began this morning with lines from what has become over the past few years, one of my most beloved hymns, Come and Find the Quiet Centre aka #374 in our Hymn Books…
Silence is a friend who claims us, cools the heat and slows the pace,
God it is who speaks and names us, knows our being, touches base,
Making space within our thinking, lifting shades to show the sun,
Raising courage when we’re shrinking, finding scope for faith begun.
In the Spirit let us travel, open to each other’s pain,
Let our loves and fears unravel, celebrate the space we gain:
There’s a place for deepest dreaming, there’s a time for heart to care,
In the Spirit’s lively scheming there is always room to spare.
What does it mean to listen to God?
Perhaps it means, among so many others, to know, in a deeper way, or perhaps to return to that place where the soul simply is in a constant state of knowing, that:
In life, in death, in life beyond death.
God is with us.
We are not alone. Thanks be to God.